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My first day.

Chronicles of Lara, a Fulbrighter

Colorado University, Boulder :

Sept 2019-May 2020

The Fulbright program is incredible. Acknowledging the diversity of humankind simultaneously with the possibility and the need of finding common ground, it is resources well committed. More strength to it!!

These are some jottings about my Fulbright experience. I landed the Fulbright for my research proposal “Improvisation in Jazz and Indian Classical Music – a Cross Cultural Study”. I will be researching and teaching at the Colorado University in Boulder for the next 8 months.

I arrived on 8th September at the Denver airport in the afternoon. On my visit to CU on the very next day of my arrival I encountered very friendly people – students, staff. Polite, helpful… I met Prof John Gunther, head of the Jazz program there. He was preparing for his graduate class but met with me and my daughter. Looking concerned he said “You need to drink a lot of water – it is the altitude.” And he said with a laugh – “and it will get cold”. I buried my face in my hands as I said “I know. For me 15 degrees celsius is cold. Not looking forward to the cold several degrees below here.”

The graduate class that we were invited to sit in was a discussion of an essay by Keith Waters, another faculty at CU, about the music of Miles Davis. I was struck at the complete absence of any professional rivalry – John was talking so warmly of Keith’s work. The atmosphere of casual but serious interaction was most interesting. And admirable. The professor was informal, students were relaxed, drinking tea despite a notice forbidding food and drink in the classroom, walking in and out of the class without disturbing…

The Virtual and the Real

The Fulbright experience should have been one of unadulterated joy and achievement.  To get to work with academics in US Universities and to get a taste of the American life is surely an experience of a lifetime.

Covid-19 has undeniably cast a cloud over this experience for the 2019-2020 batch of Fulbrighters.

I tried to remain optimistic and engaged to the extent possible and refused to allow myself to rue.  Sympathy came in from every quarter – “Oh what a pity the last two months of your residency were washed away.”  I don’t believe they were washed away.  It was possible to be productive even then.  I introduced students who would play Mozart and Bach on their Cellos and violas and double basses to the angular lines of Raga Durga and the sweeps of Raga Bihag.  I tried to get them to see swaras not as points and pitches as a Western Musician is wont to but as small, rippling, pulsating aural spaces different points in which get lit up in different movements of the raga.  Teaching over zoom was clearly fraught with challenges but it was better than nothing.  I engaged a couple of classes miles away in a college in New York.  I talked about raga and rasa, the cognitive dimensions of raga and the idea of the emergence of a raga in performance as its subtlest.  Greg Menillo whose class I addressed found parallel ideas in the works of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.  I recorded a video lecture on Raga and Rasa for a class on Asian Aesthetics at CU Boulder working for the first time with the applications Quicktime and Imovies, which was great fun and in itself an achievement for me.

Zoom class – teaching Raga Durga

But, above all, during this crisis, I got to see how Universities, faculty and students sought to overcome the challenges of suspending person to person classes.  I got to see how the faculty poured in extra energies and hours to deliver.  I saw how it affected students and faculty with anxiety and misgivings – about how to deliver and be perceived as delivering.  One mail urged that photos of my lecture be shared with the administration since “they seem to think that we are doing nothing”.  I saw how the faculty and students found online classes stressful while devising ways to circumvent it.  I saw how direct interaction is irreplaceable and is felt to be so by faculty and students.

Among the lessons we can derive from Covid 19 is a sense of what we can safely move into the virtual realm and what we cannot.  It has driven home the irreplaceability of human interaction as the best way to achieve certain ends.

With Prof Paul Erhard at our apartment complex in Boulder – socially distanced!

With my wonderful faculty host Prof Steven Bruns

The Fulbright vison too revolves around human interaction to achieve its agenda of cultural understanding.  If Fulbright seeks to foster cultural exchange, it does so by presenting individuals, accomplished persons as the “ambassadors” of their culture.  When successful, this cultural exchange sees the dismantling of culture as a monolith and puts forth persons: always persons.  A person is no doubt perceived as a product and bearer of a culture, of a race, of the memories and stories of her land, but at the end of personal interactions during a few months of academic engagement through teaching and research, she comes across simply as a person.  A human being with similar questions and aspirations as any other, with similar doubts and epiphanies, deriving the same joy through music and dance, struggling to come to terms with the similar ethical issues of inequitable distribution of wealth and resources in her land, the same love for the mountains and the rivers.  Kant’s “starry skies above and the moral law within” shines in and tugs at the hearts of every person of every culture, filling her with “ever increasing awe and wonder”.  The Fulbright experience makes it possible to see this light in every person representing her culture and in so doing, it dents the walls separating people and cultures.

Asteroid Deliverance

In his Quarantine Monologue, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel made a startling remark.  He said that an asteroid the size of the Empire State Building was approaching the earth over the weekend, and “who knows, maybe we will get lucky and it will hit us”.

Was it an expression of world weariness?  World weary and an American?  That is not normal! They would turn world weary philosophies into life affirming ones: you just have to hear what Richard Gere says about Buddhism which he claims to follow. Kimmel’s was more likely an expression of frustration: being fed up with the problems mounting relentlessly upon the US as a completely dysfunctional leadership ignores all expectations of sobriety, wisdom and sensitivity. The President refuses to acknowledge the pain and suffering among his people caused by the virus, unemployment, police brutality, racism….  He threatens to set the army on his own people.  There is no empathy.  

Back home in India, even as the poor continue to undergo unspeakable hardship, even as the exodus of hungry migrant workers’ continues in an Indian summer, another horrendous, shameful tragedy came to light.

Images of a pregnant elephant standing in water for two days – an abnormal act by any standards – shook us all.  What pain was she in that she stood in the water until she died.  That image set this apart from other acts of cruelty to animals.  We don’t see behavior that screams out their pain.  Here the act of quietly standing in the water, refusing to budge and just dying – that was her scream and we aren’t able to shut it out.

I grieve and I am in pain.  Is this normal?  I wonder.

As I think about the elephant’s pain, bewilderment and helplessness, not to speak of the baby in her womb, I struggle for meaning, to retain hope.

That this also turned into a political blame game is beyond belief. And then there is outrage that the elephant tragedy has elicited more reactions from celebrities than the deaths of migrants.  That maybe true.  Perhaps we, in India, are inured to the suffering of the poor.  Why did the whole nation rise up at the elephant tragedy?  Was it because it was a wild and beautiful thing, having nothing to do with the vile world of men?  Was it because of the unimaginable, deliberate cruelty of human agency that rendered her in excruciating pain, unable to feed or drink water for weeks until she collapsed of starvation?  Was it because she was pregnant?  Maybe it is selective outrage; but the images haunt and the pain does not go away.  

And, we know that this news cycle will also dissipate, that men, women, and children will continue to be brutalized by the powerful and that animals will continue to be tortured, have their mouths blown away.

I thought of the Bodhisattva who, in many Jataka tales, is a noble elephant.  In one such tale, a human, lost in the forest, is offered shelter by the elephant.  The man comes back again and again pleading poverty to ask of the elephant a bit of his tusks.  The noble elephant agrees each time until one day the human pulls both the tusks out from their roots, leaving the elephant injured and dying.

Reading this story as a child I thought it was just that – a story, an unlikely, improbable story.

Despite everything man is capable of – thinking, feeling, empathy, loving, birthing, singing, dancing, painting – how are we capable of such cruelty?  What are we?  All the philosophers who pondered over the good do not explain this. With what hope do we face tomorrow, with what joy in our hearts do we go on when this streak of unspeakable cruelty lies in us?

I am weary and ready for the asteroid.

For an Amish Break

It looks like a long break for us from normalcy, from jostling markets and birthday parties, from celebrity concerts and nail biting sports, from school shows to mob dance.  It is sobering, humbling, unbelievable but true.  Across the globe most countries ordered their citizens to hunker down, to hide, to sit quiet as the virus ravaged cities.  And the skies became bluer, air cleaner, dolphins came out into waters they had stayed away from, deer came exploring into shops and we exult and we dream – flickering moments of happiness amidst the oppressive pall of confinement.  We dream that maybe mankind will learn a lesson. We dream that mankind will step back from its exuberance; fly less, drive less, meditate more.

“The measure of man is what he does with power” is a well known saying commonly attributed to Plato.  And we must say mankind does not measure up.  It is tempting to say that the West has failed mankind. It wrested global leadership through its practices of slavery and colonialism – immoral, greedy and cruel.  It suppressed indigenous cultures across the globe, looted nations.  It left the rest of the world looking towards their tormentors for leadership.

With its enlightenment project of freedom from authority and its unfettered quest for controlling nature – inner and outer – the West has dazzled mankind. And this is also the path towards destruction as borne out by the climate and environment degradation as well as in creation of various ways of annihilation of earth or at least of human civilization, if not species itself.

If greed, insatiable greed is an ineradicable streak in mankind, science and technologies have given ever more devious ways to act out of that spring – a fount that spews acid and venom with nothing forgiving or redeeming about it.

Maa grdhah kasyasviddhanam says the Ishopanishad – covet not anybody’s wealth.  Don’t treat Nature’s bounties as though they are up for grabs. But that is exactly what science and technology do.

It is hard to go back, to deny ourselves the advances science and technology offer us.  But it is possible to consider critically fundamental attitudes that made these advances possible.

Take knowledge for its own sake. The atom bomb was not the scientist’s aim, their aim was knowledge “for its own sake”.  And that was used to make the bomb; that may be used for creating a bio weapon.  If the US had not created the bomb and vapourised Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nazis and the Japs surely would have developed it.  It was a race.  But, science itself is not evil we hear – only its use is. That is fleeing responsibility, plain and simple.  If anything can be misused it will be – Murphy might have said that too.

And pushing on and on to gain more and more knowledge for greater convenience.  Is it possible to say enough? Let us not hanker after more advancement except in human health and solutions to tackle the crisis the planet is facing?  Let us not create that newer model of iphone or 6 G or faster internet or train.  Let us see how we can save the glaciers and find equitable solutions for man and nature to co exist.

Is it possible for us to hope that this unimagined hiatus that Covid 19 has thrust upon humanity will be seized upon and that better sense might prevail?  Can we step back?  Can we be less greedy for wealth, for convenience, for power? Can we take an Amish break from pushing the frontiers of technology?

Can we, will we?  A “yes” is not obvious.

If Covid 19 can be imagined as nature teaching us a lesson for our excesses, it is the merest slap on the wrist.  Surely a much worse virus could have been set loose.  Surely greater losses of human life and dignity are imaginable.  Do we have the humility to see this?

Arundhati Roy suggests in her article (https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca) that this period – the period of Corona digvijaya – is like a portal from where we may step into a new world.  If that happens it won’t be because humankind will be able to exercise restraint and affect a fundamental change in the way we plunder nature and her resources, but because there is no other way to survive. Necessity and not wisdom will alone drive any fundamental changes.  And I am not hopeful at all.

The River and its Ghaat

Teaching Raga Yaman to a group of Western classical music students was an education for me.  This was part of a course on Improvisation offered by Prof. Paul Erhard.  

How does one teach improvisation?   In the first few classes Paul had students improvise as a dancer danced; he asked the students to improvise as they looked at a colour.  Playing something that the student thinks captures the dance movement or colour is a kind of improvisation that is not answerable to right or wrong.   As I asked the class – what will count as not working?  Anything the students play, even out of tune, can be seen as appropriate to the dance movement.  The music will define how we feel about the dance movement.  Let’s say the dancer is standing still with his hand raised in front of him.  If the music is sad, that is what we vest the dance with; if the music is urgent or happy, that is exactly what we feel the dance to be about.  We know this too well from suspenseful moments or happy moments in films.

Speaking of “free Jazz”, John McLaughlin said that such unfettered improvisation runs into the danger of being an indulgence; but the exercise helps overcome inhibitions, war against which is life long, and not just for musicians.

From such free improvisation the class moved to improvisation that is structured, and has boundaries: improvisation in Raga and Jazz Blues.

Improvisation in Indian music/raga has clear boundaries of the kosher and non kosher.  Some improvisation can clearly be wrong, others on the cusp of wrong and right, perhaps capturable in the idea of appropriateness or aucitya; some improvisation is competent and the rare improvisation is extraordinary.  What is the nature of the extraordinary?  In Jazz too there is middling improvisation and there is great improvisation.  What makes for that?

Teaching Yaman at CU Boulder

When I was invited to teach a raga to this Improvisation class I was delighted and wary.  I struggled with the idea of teaching a raga in a few classes to absolute novices and that too musicians trained in another completely different musical system.  Of course it was not possible.  What could be achieved was to convey how a raga emerges from a scale – how a scale is fleshed out into a raga.  I decided on Yaman – a familiar scale for them – the Lydian scale.

I recorded a few aalaap segments and a sargamgeet in teentaal.  Without any explanation.  I had them hear it and try to reproduce on the voice and their instruments.

They must have heard it a few times and when they came to class it was clear they were unable to deal with it.  One student who finally relaxed into a smile after two classes of frowning and worry, said he had difficulty with the pitch positions; he also had an unexpected problem- he said he had difficulty with the Ni Re movement. The fact that the 2nd degree is played from the 7thdegree of the lower octave.  Interesting!

But they were quick to pick up this utterly foreign music – not a mean feat.

Alex playing Yaman on the
Double Bass

Paul broke the aalaap movements down, explaining how each note was, as it were, co articulated with adjacent ones; tracing the Ga at the end of the quick movement from Ri to Ma; the flicker of the Ni as we hit the Sa – just a flicker, not a warm glow I told them, that Ma elongated just so much before hitting the Ga – too much or too little is destructive….. The fluid nature of our swaras was a serious challenge for the students.  An interesting metaphor I came across somewhere, likens Indian music, raga music to a river that washes over the ghats.  (A Ghat is a flight of steps that leads one down to a river).  The steps of the ghat are like the notes or well recognised pitches; as the river moves, it washes over some fully, some just a little, sometimes it goes halfway between one step and another.  Music flows, it is like the river.  We build ghats to step into it, to understand it, to work with it; but one could just enter the river directly and swim.  That is the best way and the traditional way when nothing is spelt out and the student has to absorb the music through the body’s pores.  In the meantime ghats are useful for the less stout hearted and those who can’t invest time and commitment.

Playing the violin, viola, cello, clarinet and double bass, the students tried, and struggled and tried again until they got a semblance of what I had sung for them.  And that was creditable.

After the performances by the students. The boys gamely wore Kurtas that Paul and I lent them.

For Western classical musicians and Jazz musicians for that matter – a note is a note, a pitch.  In Indian classical music we tend to treat swara as a living thing, a dynamic space.  For us a swara is an area – an aural space – different points on it are lit up during performance as we engage with phrases that dip into that space. In Carnatic music it is even more dynamic – the phrase Ri,,, Ma Ga Ri of the Raga Devagandhari is many dimensions more complex than just those pitches coming together.

Arabic music too has tonal complexity – it has quarter tones.  The reality with Indian music is that the microtones are just that – not specifiable.  A quarter tone is quarter of a tone – 1/4th between one and the next tone.  But the Ni of Yaman when it lights up in a sharp and short flicker as we land on the Sa is not exactly anything.  And the Ni has different personalities in different phrases of Yaman.  The Ni could be bright and powerful or a dim glow or a sharp flicker depending on the phrase.  And this is all picked up aurally, in the oral tradition; if it sounds right to the master musician or the connoisseur, it is right.

The theory of 22 sruti-s or microtones that has been discussed in texts for several centuries tries to capture these subtleties.  All texts in the lakshanagrantha tradition spend a great deal of discussion about distributing the 22 srutis over the 12 swaras.  The most recent such is that Sa, Ma, and Pa “have” 4 srutis each; Ri and Dha 3 each and Ga and Ni 2 each.  What does it mean for a swara to “have” so many srutis?  I imagine it indicates the aural space.  So, once we have the Sa, until 3 next srutis, or microtones, it is still the province of Sa.  And what is sruti?  The least discernible pitch difference.

While experimental studies have proven the reality of microtones in Indian classical music, they also indicate that the number 22 is not defensible. Musicians themselves need no experiments – we know microtonal nuancing is a real thing in Raga. And this is not usually because we try to hit pitches that are slightly raised or below the standard pitches.  It is because of the way we arrive at them – via movements from other notes which in turn are articulated in conjunction with others and so on.  The concept of co-articulation from phonetics is useful to evoke here.  An instance of this is the difference in the articulation of the “n” sound in “ten” and “tenth”.  Because the ‘n” sound is co articulated with the “th” sound, it undergoes a modification.  This idea seems extendable to the realm of tones too.  But the difference is that phonetic co articulation is usually a physical convenience: it is just more efficient to modify the “n” sound in “tenth”.  In Indian music, the dictates of co-articulation are conventions; the raga is conceived in that way.  The community of performers and listeners agrees that the articulation of the tivra Ma in the phrase Pa-Re in Gaud Sarang is different from that in Yaman or Chaayaanat.  This and other such features constitute the identity of the raga-s – their cognitive core.  In a sense the idea of gamaka is co-articulation, but as a convention and an aesthetic.

For a Western classical musician the tonality of Indian music might come across as a blur and the challenge for them is to see the method in the madness.  The blurs are not arbitrary and whimsical, but grounded in cognitive and aesthetic demands of a vibrant performance tradition.

Improvisation

There is a strange relationship between ritual and art.  Ritual is absence of creativity; art is the abundance of creativity.  And yet, rituals give birth to art and art gives birth to ritual.

Improvisation, where it is permitted, is always good. Except in rituals, chanting mantras or maybe performing yoga asanas one improvises to approbation.  You don’t find salt while cooking your dish but have lime – improvise, tweak things a little so that it can work.  But when the priest pops the question you have to say “I do”.  Not anything else – for it is an Austinian performative act.  When given a mantra by your Guru you don’t improvise.  Because again the very set of sounds in that sequence is the whole point.  There is nothing to be achieved by tweaking it.

Most activities we engage in offer themselves for improvisation because actions lead to results but slightly modified actions can also lead to the same result.

Jazz pianist Chick Corea, while talking of improvisation says, “There are rules and there is freedom”.  I need to get to a place by 4.30 pm – that is binding.  Other conditions too might such as unavailability of a car or private transportation; its access by a certain bus; if you miss that bus, then one might try to hitch a ride or walk for a distance to catch another bus route.  

Corea says I might decide to keep the harmony simple and vary the melody or the other way around.  Jazz musicians set limits for themselves in terms of these two aspects until some of them felt that they could make music without acknowledging anything binding upon them.  How then does one relate to it?  How does one assess it? John McLaughlin expresses his wariness for such jazz as “indulgent”.  “It is not making music; it is self indulgence; it is not real.”  

Improvisation can only be assessed against what the seek is, the constraints that one sets.

In music that seek is abstract, intangible, and expertise is needed to assess whether it is obtained. 

In Indian classical music – Carnatic and Hindustani – the broad seek is presenting ragas.  Raga spells the possibilities and constraints for the performer.

Ragas are associated with a framework of rules; the rules are of varying kinds – from those that can be spelt out in language like the raga Sankarabharanam does not use the augmented fourth to less precise rules like Marwa’s flat second is a strong note (how do we create that strength, how does that strength manifest itself are themselves not a matter of discursive or exhaustive description and are therefore imprecise) to subtler ones that are not quite apparent until a mistake is made which is perceived in a flash and one realizes that there is a rule there.  These rules of varying subtleties form a crisscrossing mesh which is held by, and finds validation in, practice in the community. 

The constraints that an Indian musician faces while improvising, even without the consideration of tala which spells limits in another way, seem obvious.  What is not as obvious is the freedom available to a musician to work with the immense possibilities that nestle in each raga.  

In Jazz, the constraints and how they reign in the Jazz improviser is not obvious. The freedom seems all too obvious.  To an outsider, especially to one from a melodic system of music like me, it is hard to make sense of Jazz, to see that it is not random.  But the fact is that it is not random-at least some kinds of Jazz are not.  What binds a jazz musician is not the discipline of melodic grammar or unfoldment of presentation like in ICM, but it derives from the various traditions that make up Jazz.  The jazz musician answers to constraints placed by harmony or the chords as well as the needs of the group interaction that have their originary roots in African sensibilities of simultaneous music making, its sociability and interactive nature.  The constraints that Jazz musicians traditionally acknowledge are the melody or the head or the basic tune or song whose variations make up improvisation and the chord changes which spell out a shape for the improvisation and finally the overall necessity of listening to each other in the band.  Like ICM – both Hindustani and Carnatic – there is a leader in any Jazz band but the roles of the others in the band is more active and can shape the music significantly.  This is because even the quiet, receding Bass player – in a good band – might suggest a chord to which the soloist would respond.  Herbie Hancock recounts an instance when accompanying Miles Davis, he played a wrong chord.  Davis made it right by improvising over that “wrong” chord so that it made it right. Hancock dropped the ball, but Davis did not call it out – he created a new game out of it where that dropped ball was part of the game.

This sort of “correction” happens in ICM too.  One might make a mistake while coming to the sam of the tala but can make a creative moment out of that.  I recall a concert by Sanjay Subrahmanyan when he sang a composition with the song pick up at half measure into the first unit of the tala.  When he sang the first round of swaras, he made a mistake and ended up at three quarters measure in.  The accompanist, Varadarajan maintained that place in his response.  Sanjay grinned and both of them maintained that place through the rest of the swara prastaram.  The mistake was made OK.  This sort of interaction is perhaps more evident in Carnatic music than in Khayal. 

Some mistakes in ICM cannot possibly be made right.

Jazz improvisation is usually variations of the melodic line that is played in the beginning.  “Usually” because sometimes there is no tune or head played – in some kinds of Jazz.  Jazz musicians draw from various sources for these melodic lines – it could be a pop song, or blues or even something like the famous song from Sound of Music, These are a few of my favourite things.  Sometimes songs or the tunes are written for Jazz by Jazz musicians.

Coltrane says in an interview “I just can’t seem to find the right songs: I am listening everywhere.  I listen to other groups, records, the men I work with, trying to find what I am looking for….  I haven’t found exactly what I want yet…. I just have to write the tunes myself…Writing has always been a secondary thing for me, but I find that lately I am spending more and more time at it because I can’t find the proper tunes”.

The tune then is important for the Jazz improviser.  But it is hard, for the outsider, to see the connection between the song and the improvisation.  It does seem all over the place.  But with careful listening one can see the connection.

Following are three renditions or performances of My Favorite things, the very famous song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1959 Broadway show Sound of Music, later picturised very successfully in 1965.

This is a sedate version.  Coltrane plays the melody right in the beginning twice and then offers a couple choruses (cycles) of solo on his horn followed by the piano’s solo and then the flute’s.

A second version is below.

This version can be confounding.  It begins with a long solo improvisation by Coltrane in which there are flashes of suggestion of the melody at 1.30, 2.25 and then the full head at 3.00 minutes.  And then followed by another less comprehensible, at places noisy, improvisation.  Sometimes comments are illuminating. One such comment to this performance is:  I don’t think it’s totally misguided to call Coltrane and Sanders “angry.” This is still a blues idiom. The cosmic blues grammar seems to traffic in frustration that we are finite, limited and mortal; that we are unhappy and miserable and separate from “God” or divine truth; that we barely even exist to begin with, perhaps. Pity and terror for the human condition may be the primary emotions, but there can be anger.  

Another a commentator points out the effect the allusions in the song to white dresses and snow flakes and white winter would have on a Black Jazz musician, especially one of that era.

A final version.

Coltrane was among the first and few who offered extended improvisations – not without being criticized for it.  He said “if you can enjoy something for ten minutes why can’t you for 50 minutes?”  Perhaps this was part of the move to herald the artistry involved in Jazz.  Jazz was not just entertainment to be played as background music in bars.  It was serious stuff, demanding attention.  

There is much that does not make sense – screeches, sudden bursts – which according to a commentator could be drawn from shouts and hollers in the African America Church.

Coltrane and may other Jazz musicians have this predicament. They have to do something new, be creative, with nothing grounding them, supporting them – because Jazz musicians have rejected one by one all constraints. The angst and pressure on a sensitive artist can be huge.

Buddhism or Jaijaiwanti – How Can it Work for Me?

As a student of Philosophy one learns about the various “Theories of Truth” – Correspondence, Coherence and Pragmatism being the main ones.  Does your belief correspond to reality?  Then it is true. If I believe it is raining, then the way to see if the belief is true is to actually see if it is raining!  Duh.  That’s a no brainer.  What about the belief that 1+2+3+4+…n = n (n+1) divided by 2?  Or even the belief that 2+2 is equal to 4?  Do we look at experience to decide if it is true?  Can we allow any experience to negate it?  Not in the ordinary world of three dimensional time and space-except magic. This and other mathematical propositions form a coherent system and their coherence itself is the truth of each proposition in it.  

What about the belief that there is a God who is responsible for creation and who is all good and powerful? That becomes dicey. For nearly four centuries and continuing to this day, Western Philosophy has sought to offer a theory of epistemology and the resultant ontology etc. by upholding one of the two – sense experience or reason – as the source of knowledge and veracity.  This compulsion to find one source of all knowledge lies at the heart of the rift between the empiricists of Britain and the rationalists of the “Continent”.  Indian Philosophers always spoke of various means of knowledge (pramana) – one knows through sense perception, one knows through inference and one might know just because we hear from a reliable source.  

American philosophers came up with another theory – that truth is what works for us.  It seems a terribly cavalier response to what to many is a deep and burning question.  As argued and spelt out, the theory is more nuanced, especially in the wake of different science models and different geometries that were being developed in the worlds of Math and Physics.

“Pragmatic theories of truth tend to view truth as a function of the practices people engage in, and the commitments people make, when they solve problems, make assertions, or conduct scientific inquiry.”  (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

In propounding this theory as stated in its simplistic way, William James, C.S. Pierce and others seem to have hit the absolute nerve centre of the American disposition.  In their engagement with everything – from profound mysticism to crass politics, American are driven by what works for them.

Thich Nhat Hahn talks of deep listening – compassionate listening.  “We sit down the other person and tell him ‘I do not understand all your suffering, but I want to hear you.  I will try to understand…Please tell us about your suffering and we will try to find a solution.’  And, if we are honest and true, they will open their hearts to us.  We can learn so much about our own perception, their perception.”  And, he continues, “That is the only way you can remove terrorism”.  

Oprah, who is interviewing him, says – terrorism or… conflict with your own family members, with the boss, with your best friends…

And who can deny the importance of getting along with family and the boss.  Americans have this way of bringing things down to what works for them.

Ethan Sperry is Director of Choral Activities at Portland State University and is hailed for offering “the finest choral concerts in Portland in recent memory”. Listen to what Ethan Sperry does with Jaijaiwanti.

Jody Stecher, American country musician talks about the complexity of Jaijaiwanti, especially as practiced in the Dagar family of Dhrupad musicians – in terms of its microtonal nuances.

https://www.firstpost.com/living/dhrupad-across-borders-american-musician-jody-stecher-on-learning-under-zm-dagar-taking-up-the-sursingar-7794771.html

Its association with a scale is a destructive and reductionist way of grappling with any raga. Ethan Sperry’s work is a travesty of Jajaiwanti.

“To me, a raga is a scale”, said an American conductor who asked me for my opinion about Sperry’s Jaijaiwanti and Ramkali.

I wanted to say: “No, you don’t get to say what Raga is for you!” But in America you do!

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek discusses ‘the collateral damage” of the fundamental American value of personal freedom. Among that damage, he says, is gun violence, and, one may say, brazen appropriation of other cultures to put out what “works for the individual”.

“I am in an elevated state of consciousness” declared a lady who had been practicing meditation for many years – on her own mostly.  She was an Indian American but completely American in her demeanour and attitude.  I was the only one in that gathering in a satsang at a home in Boulder, Colorado, who was aghast.  The first sign of an enlightened person is that she does not announce it.  She does not talk about it.  But this is America and one projects oneself; without actually bragging, one puts out to the world what one thinks oneself capable of, one’s strengths and weaknesses, one’s achievements.  I would draw the line at talking about spiritual attainments.  In fact, I would draw it much before, but definitely there.

For the others in the gathering it was perfectly acceptable for the lady to claim and talk about “being enlightened”. It worked for them because here was a lady capable and willing to talk about her experiences with meditation and spirituality which might contain some pointers for them in their own meditation.

Celebrity Americans like Richard Gere claim to be Buddhists, but don’t talk about the first noble truth.  They probably don’t even get it.  sarvam dukkham?  What the…?  No, life in America, certainly for the affluent ones like Gere, is not ‘sorrowful’.  But there is discomfort – envy, competition, the stress of getting that bigger house and bigger car, of having that perfect body, that Oscar…. And they turn to Buddhism to ease them out of that.  Seinfeld talks about how TM helped him cope with the stress of carrying a show on his shoulders for weeks.   

The Buddha’s message is premised on the metaphysical condition of man mired in mortality and rebirth.  “Association with the unpleasant, dissociation with the pleasant” is the undesirable but recurring condition of lived life.  Man thirsts for permanent pleasantness, where there is no movement of the wind (one of the etymological derivations of nirvana) and that is not just being able to carry on the show.  It is to transcend that level of being in which all this drama of success and failure holds meaning.  But the typical American (there are exceptions) does not care about that.  She cares about the now and the here and uses anything that she can to make that pleasant, and successful.  Sperry does not care (or even know, I suspect) about the microtonal nuances, the emotional hues of Jaijaiwanti.  He writes a choral work, conducts its performance and sells the score.

Jazz – its restlessness

Jazz is a remarkable musical genre in its genesis in the African American’s oppressed life; in its bringing together various influences: African musical elements, African rhythmic strategies, Black aesthetic sensibilities of communality, blues, spirituals, marching bands, chords and harmony of Western classical music; in the rapid evolution of its form and content in a period of a hundred years; and in its being open ended about the influences it can absorb – Indian music, Arabic music and so on.

It is very complex music.  Rhythmically, melodically and harmonically.  Its performers need to internalize a great deal of knowledge and put in a good amount of practice to achieve virtuosity.  Charlie “Bird” Parker said he put in 15-17 hours a day in “study”. There is an art and a craft to Jazz. And yet, it does not sound weighty.

When it was practiced predominantly by African Americans, it was indeed dismissed as filthy and unworthy until it came to be recognized as “America’s art music”.

“Jazz used to be the boy with dirty hands who you wouldn’t let come into your house.  Jazz was born in gin mills, the dubious night spots …And now with clean hands it is to be found in concert halls, the music conservatories and by way of respectable and carefully produced LP records, in the nicest living rooms.”  Landing on the Wrong Note, Ajay Heble

Though white American musicians took to Jazz right from the beginning, leadership has always been with the blacks.  Each turn and twist in Jazz’s restless evolution over the past hundred years has been led by blacks – Bebop, Modal jazz, hard bop, free jazz…

Today Jazz is performed in auditoria, taught in conservatories, in Academia and yet, as has been observed, Jazz is still usually performed at places where at least a drink is served.  It still does not have the weighty feeling of a Debussy or a Mozart.

This may partly be because it is driven by individualism, driven by seeking the new which is rarely conducive to depth.  When the same principles or ideals or ways are worked on again and again over generations, while being carried forward in soft, indiscernible steps a depth is achieved that makes for weightiness..

The society into which Jazz burst was one that was rife with conflict – black American experience with its uncertainties, and modernism with the glorification of individualism, questioning of authority and rejection of traditional mores in every area of human experience.  Modernist music in European conservatories too were beginning to question established norms of music making; the opening movement of Debussy’s “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” has been described as an “uncertain doodle”, a kind of musical impressionism.  And Debussy was an important influence on Jazz musicians.

Debussy was an important influence on Ellington

Thus born into a rebellious society and birthed by a people whose lives were fraught with anguish, Jazz was bound to mirror that.  It does not set up any sacrosanct tradition.

And in a short evolution of a hundred years Jazz went through at least 4-5 phases, each time a different musical ideology.  Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz, Modal Jazz, free Jazz, atonal Jazz: what is common to these forms of Jazz?  No easy answers here.

Ed Bland’s film Cry of Jazz says that the melody or head (the composition) and the chords and chord changes are the two factors that restrain the musician’s improvisation.  Jazz improvisation is tied down by these two.  This according to the film reflects the chains and restraints of the “negro’s life”. 

“Through melodic improvisation and the ever-present contradiction in rhythm the negro makes an artform that insists on the deification of the present and which … is an unconscious holding action until he is a master of himself.  Melodic improvisation and rhythmic conflict are the joyful freeing and present oriented aspect of jazz while form and the changes are the suffering, restraining and futureless aspect of jazz.”

The film also says that Jazz is dead since it had exhausted all the variations possible. The only way to go forward is if the restraints of Jazz were changed, and, if that happened, the film says, the spirit of Jazz will die.  

Jazz did not die and it was indeed by letting go one by one these very constraints.  First to be questioned were the kind of chord changes and progressions.  Bebop, whose practitioners did not like to call themselves “Jazz” musicians, was an important moment in the history of Jazz.  The chords and changes were unlike what had been before – they were much more rapid, complex and discordant.  Charlie Parker let go of the diatonic way and adopted a chromatic idiom.  His music was cerebral and virtuosic.

Charlie Parker Bebopping

As a reaction to this followed cool Jazz and Modal Jazz.  Modal Jazz rejected the excessive “chordisation” of Bebop.  In adopting the modal approach and reducing the chord changes, the Jazz improviser found greater space to explore the soundscape.  Free Jazz dropped chords altogether.  It also dropped the constraints of the form of AAB or 32 bars or 12 bars blues.  

Flamenco Sketches with reduced chords and free form.

When, as an outsider to this music, you listen to Jazz, the sense of discordance hits you sooner than later.  It is not for easy absorption; it assumes a certain comfort with discordance, as indeed does modernist and post-modernist Western classical music. This discordance is heightened in bebop and after, finding a sort of culmination in Free Jazz.

Jazz is American Music-it bears the scars and the hopes of American society.  And that seems important to understand the creative springs of the music.  In free jazz the musician plays like: Why should anything dictate the way I make music? I go after pure sound and will do it the way I want to, the way I can do it.  Others in the band will bring in their own ways and there is nothing to bind us down so that the group can “work together”. Whatever emerges – a chaos – is music! But somewhere they also seek beauty and that is not easy to see.  Elsewhere the very idea of beauty as a goal of music is rejected.  Such a rejection first took place in the Western Conservatory when musicians like Schoenberg experimented with doing away with established principles of harmony and even tonality so that there is no one tonal centre to a composition. Why would musicians reject the idea of beauty?  “Stupidity and pride in my opinion” says Jody Stecher, American Folk musician.  Restlessness, and the pressure to be your own person and not simply carry forward a tradition is at the heart of societies infected by modernism.

Free Jazz
Ornette Coleman was highly influential post 60-s. Chaos that is beautiful to some – or not.

To go back to the film Cry of Jazz – if the various constraints that the Jazz musician acknowledges are reflective of the oppression that the black man faces in America, does the successive discarding of all musical constraints mean something?  Is the black man free of or can he dream of freeing himself of oppression?  Reality is still hard on the black man, and an America free of racism is not a reality.  So that is not an answer.  

In Jazz and Jazz alone does the black man wield leadership in America.  Perhaps as a field he owns, he explores it fearlessly, seeking newer expressions, newer aesthetics, a new day to hope – against hope.

Chords, discord and the Upside-Down Heaven of Trishanku

“Music is nothing but pitch intervals, consonance and dissonance.”  This is a typical Eurocentric description of music that I came across somewhere in my readings. Not only is it Eurocentric but also centered around the Western Conservatory leaving out musical expressions found in folk and other traditional musics of the West.

Western conservatory music indeed has these three elements at its heart.  The great Baroque and classical periods of Western music explored extensively possibilities of resolving brilliant build ups of dissonances.  One “comes home with a sigh” when dizzying movements of incredibly beautiful music, that went in and out of dissonances, moving between suggesting and delaying resolution, finally resolved into the most harmonic chord and note.  Natural principles of harmony rule.  There is great deliberation about the “naturalness” of natural harmony.  But the physical aspect of it is undeniable – simply in terms of wavelengths of pitches and the entropies they generate.

To explain in terms of Indian music, the major chord which translates as Sa, the shuddha Ga and Pa is regarded consonant and stable, not needing resolution.  (“Shuddha” is used in the Hindustani – and not Carnatic – sense as denoting the variant of the note that occurs in the major scale).  But when one adds the Shuddha Ni to the chord, then it does have a destablising effect – it seems suspended in aural space as it were, crying for resolution.  A great deal of 17thand 18thcentury Western classical music explores these possibilities – of creating dissonances and then resolving them.   The evolution of Western music has been primarily in relation to this objective, the centrality of seeking consonance and, later, questioning it, declining it.

Trishanku Swarga (Trishanku’s heaven) is a fascinating story in Hindu mythology.  Trishanku would not accept that one could not ascend the heavens in the mortal frame.  He hired another great rebel, Vishwamitra, who had proved that a Kshatriya (warrior) and not just a Brahmin could achieve the greatest spiritual status.  By the powers of the yagna that he conducted and his own spiritual fire, Vishwamitra did succeed in sending Trishanku to heaven in his human form but the Gods in heaven, horrified at such an unnatural event, pushed him back and down towards earth.  Vishwamitra, irascible and always willing for a fight, stopped Trishanku’s fall through his powers and Trishanku was left suspended upside down midway between the earth and heaven.  The sage, unwilling to yield, created a second heaven for him there, the proverbial Trishanku Swarga, where he is supposed to still reign though according to the compromise reached between all, he would never challenge the authority of Indra, the Lord of (the original) heaven.

Western classical music has its Trishanku swarga inhabited by musicians and composers who created music defying natural principle of harmony. Why should consonance be home? Why not remain suspended in disharmony?  Why should dissonance not be considered home?  And even more radically, what is home and why seek it?

The above-mentioned trends in European music were of course part of the modernist trends in Europe – after Freud and Nietzsche, the world was godless, amoral and without first principles.  The first principle of music being resolving dissonances, that was rejected in the works of many – Debussy for example, and more radically by Schoenberg.  Like Trishanku they didn’t get into the original heaven where we have Mozart and Bach and the others, but they created their own heaven which is thriving.  And they do hang upside down – everything about them is unsettling.  And they will never enter the original heaven.  Not just classical music but other forms as well thrive on dissonance which has become the new normal.   Jazz seems to have had dissonance at its heart right from the very beginning, and various kinds of Pop Music explore dissonance for its own sake, not to be resolved – heavy metal, rock and roll, and so on.

(Arnold Schoenberg’s composition.  Schoenberg is regarded the father of atonality – where there is no tonal centre and therefore no “coming back home”.)

(Free Jazz – Jazz that denies all constriants – of form, of composition, of chords, melodic and rhythmic coherence)

What is the place of consonance and dissonance in Indian classical music?  There is a great deal of discord in raga-s.  Take Marwa for eg. or vivadi ragas like Varali or Chandrajyoti below.

(Chandrajyoti is a vivadi raga – in the 12 pitch gamut, it uses the 2ndand the 3rdpitches in a deliberately dissonant manner)

In Carnatic music, inauspiciousness is associated with the class of ragas called vivadi ragas – ragas that in their essence are constituted by a discordant set of notes-they are defined by it sometimes because of their very genesis and always because of their prominent phrases.  It is believed that a guru-shishya relationship is jeopardized if a vivadi raga is taught.  Compare Schoenberg’s music castigated as degenerate music by the Nazis – while the anti-Semitic agenda was undeniable, but the atonal character of his music was cited as a reason.

The ancient terms vadi, samvaadi, vivaadi and anuvaadi are found in works like the Natyasastra and their meaning is tied to the idea of consonance and dissonance.  The vaadi is generally identified as the most prominent note in the raga and notes that are separated by a certain number of microtones or sruti are said to be its samvaadi.  So the samvaadi of Sa or the first is Pa or the fifth.  The samvaadi of Ri is Dha and soon.  And it is observed that while the vaadi is the most prominent note, the frequent occurrence of the samvaadi ensures consonance.

It is not easy to define what the role of creation / perception of consonance and dissonance is in Raga music.  When one performs a raga one does not relate to the notes or phrases as consonant or dissonant, but rather as evoking the raga in phrases.  That is how the swara or a phrase is primarily perceived or valued.

Musicians understand that the enchanting, despite being unsettling, impact of Marwa or Shree is because of the emphasis on the flat 2nd or the komal ri which seeks to be resolved into the tonic. But we emphasise the komal Ri not to create discord and then resolve it, but because that is what brings out Shree. The intention is not to create discord etc. but to try to evoke the raga’s swarupa or shape or feel.

Pt. Kumar Gandharva sings Rag Shree.

The principles of consonance and dissonance very much underpin the content of raga-s.  For eg. in most Hindustani ragas the prominent swara and the swara next in importance i.e. the vadi and samvadi are usually in a relationship of consonance.  So Yaman’s Ga and Ni are in the relationship of a perfect fifth; similarly, Todi’s Ga and Dha are separated by a fourth and so on.  There are exceptions and are recognized as such.

In Carnatic Music too phrases of raga-s constantly exploit the natural principle of consonance. Consider Ga Ga Ma and Ni NI Sa of Ritigowla and several such examples explored in M. Subramaniam’s paper “Samvaditva” available in the online resource Musicresearchlibrary.net

Despite such underlying relationships of consonance, every raga also has notes that are in relationships of dissonance and in some, these relationships are highlighted.  But music for us is not creating and resolving dissonances – that happens all the time, but the intent is simply to present the raga through its notes and phrases.

One might say that consonance is always achieved because the final resting point of our expositions by default is either the Sa or the tonic and more rarely the Pa (the fifth) or the Ma (the fourth).

A violinist friend told me her frustration in trying to harmonise Carnatic compositions – her Guitarist friend threw his hands up and said there are no other points of rest than the Sa, Pa and Ma and so the chords are going to be repetitive. That does not seem actually true. Our compositions do pause on other notes but it is worth examining the extent to which we seek resolution in the adhara shadja or the tonic.

How would denying this reign of consonance in Indian Music sound?  This is an interesting question to explore.

The Cry of Jazz

Some faculty members at CU Boulder carry this footer in their emails.  

As a faculty member at CU boulder, I acknowledge that the University sits upon land within the territories of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples, and that 48 contemporary tribal nations are historically tied to the lands that make up the state of Colorado.”

What does such an acknowledgement mean?  Some historical wrongs cannot be righted, but for precisely that reason the wrongs must be acknowledged at every opportunity.  Lest we forget…

The expression “Crimes against humanity”, according to a Wikipedia entry, was first used by Afro American historian George Washington Williams to describe the atrocities in the so called “Congo Free State” under the rule of King of Leopold II of Belgium. That rule was marked by acts of unimaginable cruelty and resulted in great loss of lives, inspiring novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Later the expression was adopted by the UN and used during the Nuremberg trials to prosecute Nazi officers.

The white man does have an unparalleled record of such crimes against humanity.

Rome’s hysteria and craze for gladiatorial sports, the spectatorial cruelty of crucifixion, barbarism of inquisition, witch burning – all these were institutionalized, carried out by or for the powers that be.  These were followed by the slave trade, colonialism, apartheid, the Holocaust, Hiroshima-Nagasaki, and as late as this year, separation of young children from their mothers at the American-Mexican border….

One does not become powerful gently.

I have met a few sensitive white Americans during my brief stay so far – men and women – who agonise over the crimes of their people against others.

A white faculty member here, speaking of European immigrants removing indigenous Americans from their ancestral lands, said: “It was a genocide, you know.”

Peggy Bruns, the lovely spouse of my faculty host, Steven Bruns, asked me after my lecture on Indian music – “How did Indian music come by the violin?” The violin has been, for the past century or so, a prominent instrument on the Indian classical music scene. Steve reminded her- “The British were there you know” with a sadness and bitterness in his voice.

Educated Americans know their history-at least they are taught it in schools.  They are taught that they have come about because of horrific crimes committed against entire peoples – Native Americans, African Americans.  The Trail of Tears, the Slave trade, and racial discrimination that still plagues the nation, have been the cost of nation building.  Films are made about it, novels written….The British, on the other hand, if Shashi Tharoor is to be believed, are blissfully unaware of their grand and great grand parents’ colonial world – how they subjugated nations, looted them, and humiliated their peoples… But this is a generalization and like all such, can quickly be weakened – Richard Attenborough is an eloquent argument against it. And many Americans are indifferent to their past and indeed the rest of the world.

Jazz is inextricably intertwined with the Black American experience.  The Cry of Jazz, a  1959 film with an evocative, provocative, and poetic text sometimes rendered in dialogue and at other times as a voice over, speaks of the “futureless future” of the black man in America. Because his future is bleak, he celebrates the present.  Everything about him is electric-his walk, his talk, his dance, his music; the swing of Jazz is grabbing hold of the moment to celebrate it and live to the most. For he may be shot down in the next moment.

The Cry of Jazz is a disturbingly political film – and therefore it is a “lost film,” according to a commentator for, who wants to deal with that!  It has been seen as a reaction to the romanticization of the Black American experience in a significant essay The White Negro by Norman Mailer.

“…the Negro…has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries….Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk….The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger.” (The White Negro)

Ed Bland, in The Cry of Jazz, says that the recurring melody or the “head” and the chord changes of Jazz are the constraints within which the Jazz musician improvises – mirroring the life of the black man trying to negotiate chains and restraints at every step.  He also pronounced that Jazz is black American music.  It was “the musical and human destiny of the Black American” and could not have come about otherwise.

“Jazz is merely the negros’ cry of joy and suffering…Not only did they create Jazz, but are the only ones who could have created Jazz.” (The Cry of Jazz)

This is not uncontested since right from the beginning white Americans seem to have been part of Jazz.  And Jazz will not be what it is without the influence of the Creoles, progeny of mixed marriages between European men and African women in America.  Creoles were educated, sophisticated, with an exposure to the finest of European culture including its classical music.  Jazz took its chords from this influence and went on to jazz them up in bold ways.  

But there are voices still that say that it is black American music and that the white man can never get it quite right.  It has been suggested that Bebop, a moment in Jazz when it boldly embraced discordance and radically new chords and chord changes, came about partly because the African American musicians wanted to perform it like “they” couldn’t, the “they” being the white man.  And, indeed, it was ten years before a white man could play bebop like Charlie “Bird” Parker.  

But Jazz is American music, and white men and women love and practice it with great pride. Incidentally, at CU boulder, all Jazz faculty are white and male.  

Academia and jazz education is another hotly contested subject.  

“You gotta sing a song; you can’t sing jazz/when Bird was around he knew he wasn’t playing jazz. He was playing his spirit.  And I think that’s the problem for a lot of musicians on the scene now.  They think that they are playing jazz.  But there’s no such thing, really/ I am possessed of my own spirit/ this is the music of the African muse/I just want to be of use to my ancestors/its holy work and its dangerous not to know that ‘cause you could die like an animal down there”.  This is from In the Break by Fred Moten, a highly charged book on Black subjectivity and Aesthetics.

Even a musician like Miles Davis was a victim of racial attack – he was beaten up by a cop outside a bar in New York where he had a gig when he stepped out for a bit and refused to “move on” as told.  What does the music from a tormented soul sound like? Louis Armstrong, playing a discordant note, said that was the black American in America, part of the music and yet not part of it.

Jazz is a remarkable case study for musiciologists.  A new genre that came to life right within our memory.  Oppression exists everywhere but it does not always result in a new musical genre.  But the being of that music is then forever shot through with sadness.  Or should be – lest we forget.

Mantra, tantra and Jazz

Boulder is a liberal enclave in Colorado flanked on the West by rolling hills, the magnificent Rockies. I see children playing on a large field of a Middle School near our apartment, Summit Middle School – right in the shadow of mountains.  I wonder what impact it must have on young minds – whether you get to play beneath the blue skies and clouds with a mountain range soaring behind you or whether you get to play on streets surrounded by high rises. Certainly, J Krishnamurthy thought it makes a big impact.  But children are resilient and can make clouds out of concrete.

Playing ground of the Summit Middle School-a winding path as if leading into the mountains.

But coming back to Boulder, it has interesting connections with India.  Yoga is wildly popular- I knew that.  But there were other things I didn’t. I met another resident at the mailbox in the apartment complex and after exchanging polite hellos, we got talking. He said his name was Gerald and put his hand out.  I shook it and said “Lakshmi”.  He stepped back and said with an elaborate gesture of respect: “Oh!  Lakshmi!  The Goddess of prosperity!”  It was dusk and I could not see his face clearly but was sure he was American and was astounded.  He laughed and said that he chanted Lakshmi mantras.  Still flabbergasted I asked “From the vedas?  Do you chant Shri Suktam?”  He said “Yes and other hymns.”  And then he asked me – “Do you chant?”  Ummmm. I said “NO”.  In India, does anybody ever ask anybody else whether they chant? It is not a normal thing “to do”. But here it is and several other things are.

The other day I was dragged to a lecture at a home; all I knew was that it was about spirituality.  “It is just an occasion to meet people”, said my friend who took me there.  As soon as we entered the home we were welcomed by an American lady and I was puzzled – I thought the name of the hostess was Prema and she was definitely Indian. Then we met an Indian lady clad in a green saree and she asked us how we had landed up there.    I said that my friend had brought me and another American lady who had walked in after us said she had seen a flyer and just came.  The green lady eagerly asked me if I spoke Telugu and I said no, I speak Tamil. And then asked me – “Do you meditate?”  “Ummmm.  No.” I said.  But the others all meditated.  I then muttered something about having attended a Vipassana meditation camp several years ago.  The green lady did not seem to think much of Vipassana though everyone had heard of it. And, I was clearly a misfit in the group. 

Then the green lady said she is “an author” and declared that we should all read her book. She was from Princeton-not the University itself but from the town.  She whizzed out and in bearing a couple of books about higher consciousness and thrust it into our hands.  I was quite unprepared for the assault, but took her book and found it quite lucidly written.

She turned out to be the speaker.

She said “Let us meditate for 15 minutes” very matter of factly.  It was assumed everyone could and would meditate.  It stretched out into half an hour because everyone was enjoying the meditation – actually doing it.  I tried but miserably failed.

Her talk was about how she had attained, and was now permanently, in “a higher level of consciousness”.  She said her perception of reality was “altered”.  She explained quite sincerely how she had embarked on the path and the experiences she had, her struggles and difficulties.  But now she was permanently in a higher level of consciousness.  She said with a self conscious smile – “I don’t care if my clothes or cell phone are not new.  I am quite happy with a 6 year old phone model.”  Well, I could say the same of myself but I am certainly not in any higher level of consciousness. She fielded questions with an edge and some combativeness, all of which did not seem exalted to me. And she continued to promote and push her book saying the proceeds would go to Karunamayee Ashram.

After the talk and the meal at Prema’s house. Sharon is a musician – a pianist – and Sridevi offered courses at the Narupa University.

“I am doing these talks because this is for everyone and the knowledge should be out there.”  Later while mingling with others over a meal, I discovered that there are many such meditation groups all over the country and the green lady – her name was Sarada – was talking at as many such groups and trying to promote her book so that “everyone can have the knowledge”.  She said there is no need to leave your home and go after guru-s.  You can practice by yourself.  And her book could guide one about what to expect.  She herself found Maa Karunaamayi (a name she pronounced in a most peculiar Americanized way) much later in her practice.

On our way back we stopped to meet a family. The host there, an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur and a great raconteur of stories, explained that there is a strong Boulder – Buddhism connection and it all started because of the CIA!!! I had been warned of his penchant for making sweeping, if often well founded, remarks. He said Tibetan monks were brought here to be trained to fight the Chinese and then some of them just stayed on.

There is also a Nepali diaspora here. Right in our neighborhood there is a Nepal Cuisine restaurant. And on a trip up the mountains to a small town Nederland, we saw a restaurant offering Kathmandu and Indian food!

Narupa University near Downtown Boulder is an interesting concept – here education is imparted along Buddhist principles – “with mindfulness”.  I am not terribly sure how this translates into practice.  I am yet to visit it and look forward to it.  The apartment complex we live is called Tantra Lake apartment – again a Buddhist connection.

Buddhism is a strong presence in the US.  Richard Gere is among the many celebrities who is a Buddhist. Herbie Hancock, legendary Jazz pianist, in a lecture at Harvard, has talked about how Buddhism has helped him in “every sphere of life” but it started out as part of his musical quest.  And this again fascinates me – musicians turning to other religions to get better at their art!  John Coltrane derived some such inspiration from Hinduism.  I can’t think of anyone in India like that who embraced another religion as part of a musical quest.

But Americans only take what they want from all these practices. David Claman, America composer and Indophile, pointed out that American Buddhists will rarely talk about the first noble truth.  Hancock does say – “Life is hard”.  But that does not capture the first noble truth in its entirety. I don’t think the Buddha walked away from his wife and young son, and a life of royal comfort, in search of truth, because he thought that life was hard!

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